Rodriguez: An Improbable and Inspiring Story

In March, during the Republican primary season and in the run up to the selection of Mitt Romney as the Republican candidate, I returned to Saigon and felt such relief to get out of the American news cycle where every media outlet was consumed with stories about the Republican debates and delegate counts. I returned in May, just in time to see the candidates from both parties redirect their messages to the November election. Right now, I wish I could opt out again and clear my head of the hype and contentiousness that will overload the news cycles until November 6th.

On Sunday night (October 7, 2012) I was transported to another realm – one where the good guy wins and justice is served up in a magical, mythical way. The CBS 60 Minutes segment, narrated by Bob Simon, told the story of a remarkable musician and an equally remarkable man named Sixto Rodriguez known musically only by his surname – Rodriquez.;mostShared

His story is as improbable and inspiring as the award winning documentary about him. Searching for Sugarman. is the film that opened the Sundance Film Festival this year and was awarded its prestigious Special Jury Prize. Sony picked it up and it is in nationwide release now. I saw it on Tuesday night and was overwhelmed and mesmerized by the mythic story of this incredible man.

Briefly, he is the son of Mexican immigrants and grew up in Detroit. He wrote songs and played Detroit clubs with names like The Sewer and The Brewery in the early ’70s. He signed a recording contract with a local record company, recorded two albums, Cold Fact and Coming From Reality that got good reviews but never made the charts. In the mid-70s he gave up his dream of a musical career and resumed his life as a day laborer, doing demolition and hard labor clean up work. He’s lived in the same house in a poor Detroit neighborhood for 40 years, raised 3 daughters there, educated them while getting himself a degree in philosophy. It’s alternately a nightmare and a fairy tale, the story an overlooked talent who gave up on his dream. But, Rodriguez’s story is different and has a very different outcome.

Jump cut to 1998 when a young Swedish filmmaker, visiting South Africa in search of a documentary subject, meets a record store owner in Cape Town who tells him the legend of Rodriguez. Legend had it that the elusive Rodriguez doused himself in gasoline on stage during a performance and self-immolated – a true martyr’s death – and the legend of his spectacular death perpetuated the myth about him. That was until the filmmaker and the record store owner decided to track down the truth.

I know it is hard to believe but Rodriguez is more famous in South Africa than either Elvis or the Beatles. Even though his song I Wonder was the anthem of the anti-apartheid movement Rodriguez never knew it, and even though half a million of his records were sold there he never received a penny in royalties. For two years, in the 1990’s the Swedish filmmaker and the record store owner followed the trail of clues that eventually led them to Rodriguez in Detroit. It’s a fairy tale come true. The film was made and is getting Oscar buzz and Rodriguez is touring again. He has made three trips to South Africa and played to sold out stadiums, and I missed him in Seattle the night after I saw the film, because the show was sold out. He’s making some money now, but he has shared it with his family and given the rest of it away to worthy causes. You’ve got to love this guy. He exemplifies the best in American values. The politicians could learn something from him – modesty, humility, talent, hard work, family values – all the things they chatter about. He has them all.


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